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Silat is an umbrella term used to describe the martial art forms practiced throughout the Malay Archipelago. Internationally it is now called Pencak Silat. Silat is a combative art of fighting and survival and it has been evolved in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam civilizations for centuries into social culture and tradition. During the colonization era, both in Malaysia and Singapore as British Colonies and in Indonesia as Dutch colonies, practitioners (locally known as pesilat) used the martial art as a form to liberate from foreign authorities.
The distinctive forms of silat with other Asian martial arts, such as kung fu, tae kwon do or karate, lie on the cultural aspect. Silat is not only for combative purposes. When accompanied with traditional instruments, such as kendang, silat transforms into a folk dance. In Minangkabau area (the West Sumatra province of Indonesia), silat was the oldest men’s tradition known as silek and it is one of the components to perform the Minangkabau folk dance of randai. In Malaysia, one form of silat known of silat pulut also shows the harmonic silat styles as a dance accompanied by traditional instruments, and so in Brunei Darussalam “silat cakak” also performed with the presence of “gulintangan”. A silat form in West Java province of Indonesia, known as pencak, is usually accompanied with music, notably by the traditional Sundanese suling instrument.
A theory states that silat word itself comes from silek from Minangkabau language. Silek was one of the of components to perform the Minangkabau’s randai folk dance components besides bakaba (storytelling) and saluang jo dendang (song-and-flute).
The noun silat has a formidable arsenal of terms used to refer to martial arts in Southeast Asia. It can be said in Malaysia as seni silat (art of silat), seni bela-diri (art of self-defence) and sometimes ilmu silat (knowledge of silat). In Sumatra, silat is known as silek and in Java and Indonesia as Pencak Silat. The Chinese fusion of silat is known as kuntao.
Silat began spreading throughout the Malay Archipelago in the seventh century AD, but its origin is still uncertain. Silat has been acknowledged as a genuine Malay art. Malay people that have inhabited coastal cities of Sumatra island and Malay peninsula, from Aceh in the north to Kelantan, Kedah and Riau archipelago in the south, practiced silat. Contacts with other ethnic groups in the coastal cities had also influenced silat. There is evidence that Chinese and Indian culture influenced the martial art forms. When Islam spread throughout the archipelago in the fourteenth century, it was taught alongside silat. Silat became a spiritual training as well as being a combat art and folk dance.
Silat was refined into the specialized property of sultans, panglima (general) and pendekar (warriors) during the Malacca Sultanate, Majapahit and Srivijaya empires. It was the time when silat spread through Malay peninsula, Java, Bali, Sulawesi and Borneo. Malays, in particular in Malay peninsula, consider Hang Tuah as the father of silat.
Silat shares the same history in Malaysia (incl. Singapore and Brunei) and Indonesia during the colonial era as a form to liberate from foreign authorities. During post colonization era, silat evolved into formal martial arts. National organizations were formed, such as in Malaysia: Persekutuan Silat Kebangsaan Malaysia (PESAKA), in Indonesia: Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia (IPSI), in Singapore: Persekutuan Silat Singapura (PERSIS), in Brunei Darussalam: Persekutuan Silat Brunei Darussalam (PERSIB), as well as in US and Europe. Silat is now included in competitions, particularly during the Southeast Asian Games.
In Indonesia, pencak silat was chosen in 1948 as a unifying term for their martial arts. It was a compound of the two most commonly used terms for martial arts in Indonesia. Pencak was the term used in central and east Java, while silat was used in Sumatra. In modern usage, pencak and silat are seen as being two aspects of the same practice. Pencak is the performance aspects of the martial art, while silat is the essence of the fighting and self-defense.
In Bali, with a predominantly (94%) Hindu population, silat is a unifying force in each district and almost every village. Formal instruction takes place every morning and evening by one of two organizations: Bakti Negara and Kertha Wisesa.